On algorithmic authority: depends on the algorithm

Lately, the Facebook “friend recommender” has been making “helpful” suggestions. I should “poke” Josh Silver, executive director of FreePress, an advocacy group in favor of net neutrality. I should “friend” Steve Case, founder of AOL. I should introduce friends to the largest real estate developer in Menlo Park, who clearly needs my help. I should write on my Mom’s wall, since we haven’t corresponded lately on Facebook. Facebook’s algorithm is doing a hilariously pathetic job at doing the sort of social assessment we do every day about maintaining social connections.

Facebook’s faith in algorithms is also failing when it comes to its new approach to status updates. Users now have two choices – the News Feed, where Facebook chooses what items are interesting to you, based on an opaque algorithm that users don’t have the opportunity to influce. And firehose “Live Feed”, with every single update from every Facebook friend. Facebook used to have some filtering tools that gave users some choice, but they have abandoned this approach, at least for now.

Louis Gray writes that this approach caused him to miss the news that his sister, who’d been regularly posting updates, had had a new baby. Facebook’s feed algorithm guessed what Louis was interested in, and guessed badly wrong.

In a provocative new post, Clay Shirky writes that “algorithmic authority” – algorithms that Google uses to prioritize search results, show stories in Google News – are becoming a new, accepted form of authority – something that people will accept as reliable by default. These algorithms choose what to show, instead of a human editor.

There’s merit to Clay’s idea – Google News really does use math to produce a reasonable simulacrum of what the news media collectively thinks is important. Google News does a fine job of composing a “front page” based on well-covered, well-trafficked stories. The domain is part of the reason – an earthquake, a war, a stock market crash, are items that many news organizations consider “stories” – there is a lot of convergent information to chew on.

Google News is replacing editorial judgement about what goes on the “front page” – but not about what to cover in the first place. The reason there are stories about plane crashes and missing white women is that conventional wisdom considers these things news. If local news about political battles or environmental hazards doesn’t get covered in media or blogs, Google News won’t find it either. The only thing that Google has to work with is content that some editorial staff or blogger has chosen to cover.

Facebook’s algorithms do less well than Google News or PageRank. Facebook’s failures involve much smaller data sets – hundreds of updates, hundreds of friends – and relevance, not to a broad swath of readers, but to an individual, who has rich context that facebook doesn’t to assess who’s a friend to reconnect with, who’s a relative who prefers other channels; who is appropriate for various levels of formality – no, I am not going to Poke Josh Silver.

Regarding the use of algorithms in social systems, there are very different sorts of problems and desires. Whether “an algorithm” can and should be considered a reliable source will depend on the algorithm and the domain. Where will number-crunching work best, and where will software work best to augment the neural network in our minds? This is an important question in the design and evolution of social software.

Topical social filtering – how to create a tag-filtered twitter list feed

Twitter lists are a handy way of paying attention to a group of people with a common interest. But the trouble with using lists to focus attention is that people often tweet on more than one subject. When following a list of people interested in “government 2.0”, the list stream will include a lot of posts on other topics. But if you filter the stream on a hashtag, you now have a stream, with posts by interesting people, only about the topic you care about.

Topically filtered lists can be particularly useful for group activities where you want to focus attention or avoid spam. Filtered lists help readers focus attention without steering contributors to post only topically, which makes Twitter more publishing-oriented, less individual, and overall more boring. Amy Gahran writes about the potential for relevant discovery here.

A search subscription on a tag or search term is vulnerable to spam – spammers can add the tag to their self-promotional posts. But a list filtered by the tag or term is easier to protect against spammers. For example, redhookd is a twitter feed with hyperlocal news about the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. The feed is produced by a small team. If they wanted to also take community input, a hashtag would get spammed by real estate and other spammers, but a tag-filtered list would enable them to create a community feed with contributions from people who have interesting things to say and don’t spam.

Today setting these things up is a bit of a hack — I suspect this is going to quickly attract features and services, because it’s the heart of an important emerging design pattern – customizable social filters.

Online communication is moving toward streams; popular streams quickly become floods; and the neural networks in our minds; and the social networks in our lives are very effective ways of turning the stream back into a water fountain.

Here’s the recipe for creating your own topical social filters:

1) Twitter doesn’t yet have an rss feed for list streams. Until they release this obvious feature, you can create an rss feed out of a twitter list using this tool:
http://twiterlist2rss.appspot.com/

2) You can create filter for the desired hashtag using this tool:
http://feedrinse.com/

3) Then get the get the feed. As an example, I created a feed that contains all posts by people on Adriel Hampton’s #cadata list who mention #gov20. Voila, a focused feed of Government 2.0 posts from involved folk in California.

http://www.feedrinse.com/services/rinse/?rinsedurl=27af0cf3826750a131d9e6a096f124a2

In praise of semipermeable social boundaries

In recent weeks, a number of folk have been writing in praise of Facebook’s closed-ended social model. Dare Abasanjo and Robert Scoble write that they prefer discussion threads that are not polluted by the unwelcome voices of strangers, as they are in FriendFeed and Twitter.

I’d like to take a contrary position in favor of a more open model of online social interaction. The Facebook model is biased against getting to know new people. The Twitter model is biased in favor of getting to know new people – slowly and gradually.

With Facebook, you can see comments from a friend of a friend you don’t know. But you can’t discover very much about them if they have their profile configured in the default and typical manner. And if you want to learn more about them, then you need to request mutual “friend” status – which is socially not done if you don’t know the person.

With Twitter, you can see someone’s twitter stream (with the most common configuration), and choose to follow them without imposing any obligation. People can gradually get each others attention with retweets and @ hails – follow back if congenial, and no offense if not.

Some people feel more comfortable in a closed social world, in which there are high barriers to meeting new people. I feel more comfortable in a more open world in which the barriers are lower and semipermeable. I’m not against closed groups and private spaces – I just want to use them selectively and share easily instead of being steered to a closed conversation as the default model.

Many of the commenters on danah boyd’s post on the relative social models of Facebook and Twitter felt more comfortable conversing Facebook where only their friends can see it. I can see this for private topics – but a lot of Facebook conversation seems to me like ordinary light conversation – where there’s no harm in people stopping by – and not being able to learn about the people you’re talking to is even more exclusive than 3d life.

It is true that in FriendFeed, where the comments are threaded and visible, a famous person like Scoble can attract trolls and unwelcome visitors. It seems to me that the solution to this is to allow viewers to filter or segregate people one is not following; and to block trolls.

At a session in the recent readwriteweb conference I asked the audience who had gotten to know someone gradually, through social media. Everyone raised their hand. The semipermeable boundaries on Twitter help this to happen.

There are significant social design challenges in helping people manage the intimacy gradient in online social networks. Defaults are very sticky. Often when there are choices, those choices are presented in ways that are incomprehensible and inaccessible – keeping the default choices sticky – and giving tremendous power to a few designers to shape big parts of our social lives. A better way to do this is to offer progressive choices and variations that make sense to people in their social contexts.

This isn’t easy. Does anyone have examples of applications with well-used, progressive, non-default choices? Any good examples of such choices in social software? Insights welcome.

The end of information, the return of conversation

Dave Weinberger is writing and speaking about the end of information. Information has been the dominant metaphor for understanding the world and people, but this is changing.

The evidence of change is before us with the rise of stream interactions in Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. In and among the bots and the bot-like self-promotional behavior there are people talking to each other.

One problem with the current form of stream conversation is that it can be hard to see in a distributed environment – we need standards and tools to be able to re-assemble distributed conversations. Another problem is that conversation gets lost in time, as the stream scrolls back into history. Even though you can search to find information, the content is lost without context. There’s a need for search engine to evolve to be able to not only find out-of-context snippets, but to search the conversation.

Another need is to create curated conversations out of the raw material of the discussion. One for how to do this uses a wiki. In Wikipedia, encyclopedia entries have “talk pages” where editors can debate the content. The result of the debate is what appears on the page. In the wiki genre, the norm is to have the output be a single-voiced, smooth face. Maintaining multiple voices using “thread mode” is considered bad form in some communities. Sometimes you want to present a single face to the world – when you are writing an encyclopedia, a how to guide, software documentation, a pattern guide – you want to edit it down to a single voice; and if there are multiple voices, to present them as cleanly counterposed alternatives.

But at other times you don’t want a single voice, but to preserve a sense of the conversation, with the different voices and perspectives. To preserve some fascinating Twitter conversations and enable the conversation to continue after the moment, I put together this post, summarizing Howard Rheingold’s conversation about multi-tasking and this one on the thoughtful use of points in social systems based on a conversation with Kevin Marks, Tom Coates, Jane McGonigal, Tara Hunt, Josh Porter and others.

Clearly these summaries met a need – they were among the most popular posts in my (rather low-trafficed) blog and fostered ongoing conversation on the topics. But it’s difficult and painful to do – we need better tools for it. And we need words for it – a genre, a rhetoric, a recognized social practice.

Interestingly, there are pre-modern genres that have well-established genres of representing conversation-in-time with a conversation-in-text, itself intended to be the basis of of ongoing conversations. The Talmudic and Confucian forms both came out of oral traditions, and created genres to represent curated conversation based on earlier conversational layers (I don’t know much about the Confucian tradition but hope Audrey Tang or others who know can chime in).

Of course, the social structure of the conversation is different in these modern forms than in the tradition-oriented Rabbinic or Confucian society. Curated summaries and curators will be accepted by popular acclaim, as measured by references, traffic, list-hood, and other markers of community recognition, rather than a role in a traditional hierarchy. Conversations take place – vocabularies and norms are worked out – within communities. In our modern conversations, the communities will be shaped by self-organization and local governance, rather than by traditional boundaries. Tools to instantiate and reveal these self-organized community boudnaries include socially filtered lists and moderated groups.

There are other differences between the modern and premodern forms. We surely will not maintain the value, in the pre-modern genres, that older sources are presumed to be more authoritative and wiser than newer sources. Our references will be contemporary references and disciplines, not a canon of traditional texts.

Even with these differences, I suspect this is an example of convergent evolution. Curated conversation is a form that that arises when there is an ongoing an conversational discourse and a community of participants who wish to remember the conversation for the purposes of reference in ongoing conversation.

To build on David Weinberger’s points, we tend to think of words as either talk or text – but intermediate genre of a text that represents a conversation, and is itself an artifact in ongoing live conversation.

Are Twitter lists the new blogrolls?

Twitter is gradually rolling out lists, which let individuals create sets of twitter users they follow, and allow others to follow lists. I’m looking forward to the adoption of twitter lists, to all users and to clients, because they will help manage attention when following lots of people and find other interesting folk to follow. But I wonder how long the “lists” will last as a social game- will they stay interesting, or will they become 2010’s version of the blogroll?

In the early days of blogging, bloggers developed a practice of listing their favorite blogs in the sidebar of their own. This was a practice that fostered recognition, making visible community ties (political bloggers would link to those of like persuasion; tech bloggers to other tech blogs, etc) and reinforce emerging status hierarchy relationship (as smaller blogs linked to bigger blogs, but bigger blogs didn’t link down). For a time, blogrolls were the subject of social contention and squabbles about who linked to whom.

But over time, the attention to blogrolls died down. To some extent, this may be due to the weakening of blogs and their linkages as a (very loose) social network with the rise of explicit social networking services, and social messaging which weaves realtime lightweight social links among bloggers perhaps better than anything on the blog.

But I suspect that blogrolls may have died before and regardless of these other trends, because there was another problem – the information was static. A blogger carefully composed a list of their favorite blogs, and then stopped paying attention, while blogs moved, bloggers retired, changed subjects, and the world otherwise moved on. There were tools that made it easier to update blogrolls, but they didn’t help – the fundamental problem is that people don’t update lists.

Today, as Twitter gradually rolls out the feature, early users are making lists to highlight the top people to follow in various categories. Like blogrolls, there are social dynamics – lists reinforce and help create prestige hierarchies. Presumably there will be preferencial attachment, as users who appear on lists will gain more followers, who will put them on their own lists. Lists are a competitive social game, with users competing for attention. The question is whether they will remain and grow in value, or fade like blogrolls did.

Twitter lists have a major potential advantage over blogrolls. If users use them actively to manage their own attention, then they will be motivated to keep the lists current, since non-interesting people will clutter the followers own stream. It will be interesting to see how lists will continue serve those dual roles: managing attention and curating lists for public audiences. Will the criteria for display be the same as the criteria for personal use? Will the very early adopters, who are using lists for display, keep them up?

Also, how will the asymmetry of Twitter lists affect use over time? A list is very different from a group, which establishes mutual visibility among its members – lists don’t seem to foster connection. A user can subscribe to another user’s list, and there is nothing mutual about that gesture. Now, the asymmetry of Twitter’s social model has had wonderful social results, in that it enables the gradual creation of social linkages without the obligation of mutual friending, and therefore helps the network grow and helps people discover others. The asymmetry of lists seems odder – people are seen in each other’s company without any relation.

As I mentioned, I’m eagerly looking forward to the broad rollout of lists – I’ve been “dunbarred” for a while – I see interesting new people often, but it’s hard to follow new people without better tools for managing my own attention. Just personally, I’m less eager for another status game. I care about who’s interesting, not who’s famous, and don’t find it intrinsically interesting to pursue fame. Will there be new social games for lists, or will it be primarily a fame game? (which is compelling for lots of people, just not me so much).

Profile-based social networks hit a wall, because there’s a limited amount of interest in static information, and people tend not to keep them up to date (perhaps more interesting to teenagers who need social self-definition). Streams are much more interesting because the now is always changing.

Will Twitter’s list pass the Delicious Test test of successful social software ecosystems, that it has value for the individual and gains more value with more users? Will it be temporarily interesting, like a blogroll or a profile, or have ongoing interest, like a stream?

Time will tell.

Update: several people have observed in Friday Twitter conversation that the lists people use to manage their own attention are more likely to be private, and the subject-matter focused lists that people use for display will be more likely to be public. If this trend plays out, this makes it less likely that the feature will pass the Delicious test over time, since people will be more likely to maintain the private lists that they need for their own use than the public ones.

Oh for more good social usage research

Pew recently released its study of Twitter usage showing that 19% of internet users currently use Twitter or a similar social messaging service. The study has some intriguing results, including a statistic showing that cyborgs love twitter best – the more internet connected devices someone owns, the more likely to use Twitter – with 39% of respondents with four or more devices. And that Twitter users often come from the population that already uses social networking: “Internet users who already use social network sites such as MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn are also likely to use Twitter (35%), compared with just 6% of internet users who do not use such social network sites.”

danah boyd compares the social use of Facebook status update and Twitter posts in an interesting blog post with an even more interesting comment thread in which people share personal stories about how they use each service differently. There are some common patterns, and also some differences in personal style and social comfort – some find Facebook a more congenial place for private, and Twitter for public/professional posts, while others find Twitter’s open network more socially congenial.

The data from the Pew study is interesting but “thin” – the information about mobile and connected use says very little about how people actually incorporate these tools into their mobile, connected social lives. The stories in danah’s post are richer, but they are they are anecdotes from people who read danah boyd – surely not a representative sample of social network users 🙂

The discussion on danah’s site raises questions about individual temperament, about the social structure of people’s personal and professional lives, about preferences for conversation with known people and new people, about the affect on the use of the tools on networks of relationships in the world. It would be great to have more information than the fascinating comments conversation.

Oh for more good research on the social use of social software, that asks good questions about how people integrate and perceive social tools in life and work, and that reveals more interesting patterns than simple stereotypes (often a sign of not such good questions).

What are your favorite social software studies? Favorite researchers? References welcome.

Michael Chabon: Maps and Legends

Maps and Legends is Michael Chabon’s love letter to the genres and works of popular, non-realistic fiction that he’s loved all his life – Sherlock Holmes, comic books, Norse myths, ghost stories. Chabon is the Pulitzer prize-winning writer of novels including The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

The wonderful thing about book is hearing Chabon read his favorite tales, with the enjoyment of a fan, the perspective of an attentive reader of the narrative forms, and the technical eye of a good professional writer. Chabon unpacks the rhetoric of ghost and horror stories, where the narrator tone is confessional, testimonial – telling the reader in confidence that the story they are about to hear, and the shocking fact they are about to discover, is observed truth. He demonstrates these techniques later on in the book, in a tour de force “memoir” disclosing his personal encounters with golems in Flushing, LA and Seattle. He reads Cormac McCarthy’s The Road against the traditions of post-apocalyptic science fiction; the blasted landscape, the brutalized survivors, the ambivalence toward technology; and against the genres of Jack London, Robinson Crusoe survivalist adventure and Gothic horror, in which things get progressively more horrific in increasingly shocking ways.

He writes nicely, and occasionally can’t restrain himself from using his decorative chops – this is how he describes the world of Norse myths, which “begins in darkness, and ends in darkness, and is veined like a fire with darkness that forks and branches. Everything that is beautiful, in the Norse world, is something that glints, sparks from ringing hammers, stars, gold and gems, the aurora boealis, tooled swords and helmets and armbands, fire, a woman’s hair, wine and mead in a golden cup.” And this on a comic book distopia by Howard Chayken: “above all with its accumulated history of stale, outmoded, and rotting bright futures, the comic book was perfectly suited not mearly to adapting but in some measure to embodying the hybridized, trashy, garish future of simulacra and ad copy that comics had been hinting out over the past decade.”

Chabon makes it clear that he experiences these works of popular genre fiction as a fan. The introductory quote for the book is Melville writing about his love for whaling, and the attribution reads “Herman Melville, on the writing of fan fiction.” This is the book’s point of view throughout. One example among many – Chabon describes the attraction of the believability of ghost stories: “We love [ghost stories], if we love them, from the depth and antiquity of our willingness to believe them.” He uses the second person plural pronoun – he includes himself among the fans.

Chabon writes interestingly about how the Sherlock Holmes stories served as an early catalyst for a culture of fan fiction. For nearly a century, Holmes has gathered an army of pseudo-scholarly fans who assiduously fill in the backstory and the gaps of the arch-detectives universe. The genres and traditions of contemporary fan fiction communities, which use internet forums and wikis to elaborate upon the fictional worlds of television shows, movies, and books, have been popularized and facilitated by the internet, but preceded the internet.

The pre-socialmedia, pre-blog genres of review and critique pretended to objectivity – the professional reviewer has an obligation to deliver his informed opinion to consumers in need of guidance; the academic critic provides a purportedly objective reading of a text, in the service of advancing some greater esthetic, theoretical, or historical argument. Even (one might argue) critics who demolish claims of objectivity still purport to do so in a manner that pretends disinterest in the text itself – a politically oriented critic, or a literary theorist would not pretend to take on the text out of love.

By declaring his love for works of genre fiction, Chabon joins the post-Cluetrain throng, carrying the banner saying “transparency is the new objectivity.” In this cultural norm, one’s voice is more credible if one discloses one’s point of view, than if one pretends to have a neutral point of view. But unlike the cultural followers of David Weinberger, who carry the banner proudly, Chabon is reluctant to admit to being a fan.

Instead, the book is a long apology for the author’s fandom. As a defense, it gives the presumed attackers more power than they deserve, and reveals much about Chabon’s cultural identity in the high-culture literary establishment. The first chapter of the book is a defense of artwork that comes from the domain of popular entertainment. It identifies pleasure and passivity among the attributes that taint works of entertainment. Chabon agonizes about his attraction to these declasse forms, using the language of class – “Duly I had written my share of pseudo-Ballard, quasi-Calvino, and neo-Borges. I had fun doing it. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t stop preferring the traditional, bourgeois, narrative form.”

Chabon’s esthetic superego is partly the academic establishment, and partly the publishing establishment. He writes about internalizing the esthetic hierarchy of literary academia. “As a young man, an English major, and a regular participant in undergraduate fiction-writing workshops, I was taught– or perhaps in fairness it would be more accurate to say I learned–that science fiction was not serious fiction, that a writer of mystery novels might be loved but not revered, that if I meant to get serious about the art of fiction I might set a novel in Pittsburgh but never on Pluto.” His point of view in part internalizes the point of view of the literary publishing establishment: “over the course of the twentieth century the desire of writers and critics alike to strip away the sticky compound of Orange Crush and Raisinets that encrusts the idea of entertainment, and thus of literature as entertainment, radically reduced our understanding of the kinds of short stories that belong in prestigious magazines or yearly anthologies of the best American short stories.” Chabon resists the prejudice, but accepts the established hierarchy of prestige. He cites his own Pulitzer prize as the thing that gives him the courage to publicly discuss his love of genre fiction.

Another sign of Chabon’s establishment identification – in an article on comic books, Chabon laments the fact that publishers have cultivated the market for graphic fiction for adults, while abandoning comic books for kids. He encourages publishers to once again publish well-done comic books for children. In his plea to the publishing industry, Chabon has the demeanor of a musician who was signed by a major label before the industry imploded – he is looking to the industry to create something, instead of acting as an artist or impresario and doing it himself. One wants to urge Chabon to DIY! – and have dinner with Cory Doctorow sometime.

In the way that it frames the disclosure of the author’s love of genre fiction, Maps and Legends is also a coming out story. Michael Chabon comes out of the closet with his unacceptable loves and shameful predilections. I’m not making up this analogy between gender & sexual preferences and genre, Chabon goes there himself. “A detective novelist or a horror writer who made claims to artistry sat in the same chair at the table of literature as did a transvestite cousin at a family Thanksgiving…” “A lonely business, transgressing”.

Chabon’s discomfort with the esthetic “coming out” process is paralleled with discomfort with sexual identity. When he wrote “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”, which includes a love affair between men (disclosure, I haven’t yet read that novel) he was acutely self-conscious that people would think he was gay. And in “Maps”, he discloses that he had a sexual relationship with a guy, though he’s currently on his second (and longterm, and presented credibly as happy) marriage with a woman.

Now, Chabon is well within his rights to self-identify as not gay. And I can very easily how one might notice and need to negotiate a non-gay identity. Personally, I’ve been politically active for gay rights, keep my hair short, don’t paint my nails or wear heels, and my circle of friends is diverse in sexual and gender identity. People sometimes think I’m gay (which would be very cool, but I’m not.) I need to politely and gently give them accurate information. It’s a little awkward, but not that big a deal to come out as not gay. As someone involved in an artistic subculture in the Bay Area – of all places, here! – why is Chabon so uncomfortable with the fact that some people might think he is gay?

In “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union“, Chabon commits the now-obsolete homophobic cliche in which the characters who are gay or gay-seeming die alone, their identities unrevealed, their love lives stymied – a cliche that has been out of style for 30+ years now. I wondered, in a blog post on that book, how Chabon could be quite that dense. Unfortunately, based on this book, he really is that obtuse – he hasn’t quite got the point that people with identities off the center of the bell curve aren’t doomed or shameful – he lives in Berkeley – it doesn’t take much!

The political obtuseness regarding sexuality carries over into other sociopolitical domains. Chabon reads Sherlock Holmes in the context of adventure fiction, and adventure fiction in the context of empire, without regard for the seemingly obvious impact of colonialism.

Empires are built, however, by laying the groundwork for their own destruction. Subject peoples are educated, organized, given national identities. Any colony made strong enough to survive and flourish becomes too strong to remain a colony

.
I doubt there’s a South Asian who could read that paragraph without blood pressure medication.

The paragraph in the Holmes chapter proceeds to lament the diminishment of undiscovered territory. “The great explorations undertaken by the Empire, the surveys and royal expeditions of the previous few centuries, had done grave harm to the atlas of adventure.” Ulp. Chabon is not seeing how much the perspective of this “adventure fiction” comes from the viewpoint of the colonizer – the territories being “explored” were plenty familiar to the people who happened to live there, and the perspective of “savage wilderness” comes from the insular perspective of the explorers who saw their own culture as the only possibility for civilization. There is post-colonial speculative fiction where Chabon could learn perspectives about “exploration” and “adventure” from the perspective of people whose cultures were being “explored.”

In summary: I enjoyed this book, and recommend it, mostly for Chabon’s readings of his favorite works, and also in part for the biographical chapters that shed light on the author’s creative process and artistic identity. Unfortunately, “Maps and Legend” also reveals Chabon to be un-admirably obtuse about the social/political/economic contexts of his writing and esthetic preferences. I wish he would take advantage of the wealth of role models around him to gain more comfort with sexual and gender diversity, worry less about status hierarchy of the academic/publishing establishment, and realize the cultural biases of the colonialism-influenced “tale of adventure.”

Now, as a fan of literary interpretation, I enjoy readings that dive into the work, and have theory and politics as background not foreground. There’s a reason I got a degree in English, where classes read literature, rather than in Comp Lit, where the classes focused on theory and political analysis, and barely read any literature itself – I loved the literature and wanted to read it – I took theory classes as icing on the cake. But the meta-analysis has its lessons to teach.

Search the conversation

Now that Microsoft and Google are going to search Twitter, how to make that useful? Social search is clearly part of the answer – filtering results based on social proximity, based on friend/follow lists. There’s another piece that is missing – the context of the conversation. In Twitter, conversations are represented implicitly by a series of replies between users. Twitter itself does not show that explicitly, though there are clients that do so.

The thing is, in Twitter, each message is very short, and often depends for context on a poster’s previous tweet, and on her replies to other correspondents. So in order to deliver meaningful results, it would be useful to algorithmically reconstitute the conversation.

The border of a conversation is fuzzy. In the recent conversation between Howard Rheingold and his Twitter followers on multi-tasking, there were a series of back and forth exchanges, that interspersed a bit with other topics. An algorithm would approximate the cutoff points where the topic changes, and the conversation ends.

Then, the search result could be shown in the context of the conversation, and make more sense.

The spark for this post is a conversation between me, Thomas Vander Wal and Alan Lepofsky on Twitter.

How Facebook integrates FriendFeed – Discovery vs. Privacy

This week, FriendFeed co-founder Paul Buchheit popped up on FriendFeed to let folk know that developers are quietly at work on a couple of longer-term projects that will help bring FriendFeedy goodness to the larger world. There has been a lot of discussion about the dropoff in FriendFeed traffic since the Facebook acquisition, and the appearance was intended to reassure the community. People weren’t reassured, not only because Buchheit didn’t share any details about what they’re actually working on, but because there is a fundamental questions about how that integration would work, because of a fundamental difference in the social model of the services.

Facebook is designed to to share things only with one’s friends, and FriendFeed is designed to make things discoverable through the social network. These social models look superficially similar – a user shares content through a friend list, but are deeply different.

Facebook’s default today is private/symmetric. You need to be mutual friends to see each others content, and if you are not friends with someone, you have access to very limited information. There is a “fan page” model but it is oriented toward “publishing/celebrity” rather than information sharing. By contract, FriendFeed has a public/asymmetric model like Twitter. Information is public by default, you can easily discover someone’s content without any “friend” gesture whatsoever, and you can follow someone’s stream without a mutual friend commitment. Information and conversation is discoverable. FriendFeed has strong searching and filtering capabilities that let you find things and people you’re interested in.

These two social models reflect very different values. With Facebook, the value is to share things in confidence with one’s friends, and to conversations in confidence. The deviations in the model that result from diverse friend networks, from disclosure through 3rd party applications, and other sorts of “information leakage” are seen as problems, “privacy violations” that need to be controlled through configuration, through restricting information, through policies that restrict information sharing.

With FriendFeed, the value is to share things publicly. On FriendFeed, the value is to make things discoverable and sharable, in one’s social network and with others who may find it, and to have conversations that attract interested people. Communities that gravitated to FriendFeed included scientists, journalists, and educators – communities that explicitly valued the discoverability.

In the discussion on FriendFeed, the community was not mollified, because they fundamentally value the discoverable model of FriendFeed. For FriendFeed users, simply adding FriendFeed-style service integration into the symmetric/private Facebook model, it will be much less useful. A user will able to more easily share updates from Delicious or Youtube or Last.fm to their friend network, but be unable to discover new people and information.

This difference is often put with a value judgement shortcut, Facebook is closed=bad. This judgement is too simple – the problem is that as Facebook gains more and more power to share information, and the defaults remain private, then actions like discussing news stories won’t be in the public domain, even if people would prefer them to be. But if the initial use case for many users is privacy, then changing defaults to increase sharing will have negative consequences.

For the community in the FriendFeed discussion – disclosure, myself included – the integration will have value if it brings more of the FriendFeed public/asymmetric discoverable model to Facebook, and will not have value if it doesn’t. Simply promising to bring FriendFeed features into Facebook is worthless without making that information discoverable.

How to create a social network that enables privacy but promotes and rewards discovery? That is a challenge. and the way that Facebook integrates FriendFeed will show whether Facebook is interested in discovery and so, are they up to the challenge.

Update: Questions about Facebook’s direction were short-lived. Later yesterday, Facebook announced that public updates would be searchable on Bing. Clearly Facebook is headed for more discoverability. The question is now how this will play out in terms of Facebook user expectations and user experience.

A time for focus, a time for distraction

Social messaging can quick way for a traveller to find a friend’s recommendation for dinner in a strange city, for a salesperson to get a quick answer to a question when a customer’s on the phone. Realtime communication can enable rapid response, but a constant stream of chatter can be a time-consuming distraction.

In a Psychology Today article posted by Linda Stone and retweeted by Tim O’Reilly, a recent study by two MIT neurosciencentists shows that multitasking and distraction make people less efficient at getting tasks done.

In response to O’Reilly’s post, pioneering internet educator Howard Rheingold questioned the assumptions around the research and its interpretation: “Regarding neuroscience abt attention, distraction, multitasking – is efficiency highest & only goal? What about discovery? Pattern-finding?” If multitasking makes us inefficient, is efficiency always desirable?

In response to Rheingold’s question, I shared an article I read this weekend, contrasting the efficiency-oriented mindset of web developers with the focus of game developers. In a game context, the focus is on fun, story, character, not efficiency. There are also some salient differences differences between social media and traditional games: “Of course the game world thinks of games as built by game designers & the games we play in social media are often nomic [i.e. players make up the rules]. Also what efficiency misses is that in social media we’re often paying attention to people not tasks.” Rheingold took this one step further “Which leads me to wonder how much of the dreaded multitasking we do online is social discovery and relationship maintenance/repair.”

Efficiency isn’t necessarily the goal in social media. People are making social contact, developing patterns of social gestures that maintain relationships. When a colleague in Canada posts about tasty mango sushi, and a colleague in Portland, Oregon empathizes with turn toward fall weather favoring warm soup, we’re not just spewing pointless trivia, we’re sharing a personal connection that otherwise doesn’t happen separated by many hundreds of miles. Mark Drapeau makes this point with typical good-humored provocativeness: “I think that collaboration is the end result of leveraging social networks, which is in actuality what the social networking tools are for.”

Rheingold proposes, based on his own experience that multi-tasking may also help find meaning in diverse information: “I surf and task switch constantly, store and forward what I find, make notes, often find overarching patterns. Rheingold believes that students sometimes need to learn to be less focused: “Focus has its place, but many of my students who are adept at it need to unlearn dependence on it to zoom out to big picture questions.”

Jim Pivonka agrees that that multi-tasking is useful for young people learning, but brings evidence that it is otherwisecounterproductive for getting things done: “Other than the learning task, multitasking & high performance task execution suspected pretty much mutually exclusive.

In addition to learning, Rheingold posits art as an activity that is valuable, but not about efficiency. “To me, making art is an activity that is valuable for it’s own sake, not for the artifact or its utility, so efficiency is orthogonal… To paraphrase Kierkegaard, for me, making art “is a reality to be experienced, not a problem to be solved,” or artifact 2 B displayed.. dl willson suggests that art may be efficient in a different way, “@hrheingold I would argue that art is efficient…because art is a spark. “Art” is not the object but the spark.”

To be honest, I am not sure that I am correctly representing the dialog between Rheingold and Willson; they may be able to correct my mis-reading. Regardless of the respective understandings of art, it is clear that whichever definition would not meet the tests of the neuroscientists for task-based efficiency!!

Several others suggest alternative models for focus. Brad Ovnell cites a different type of focus needed in Karate: “Loved sparring in karate b/c it developed ability to focus & look wide at once.” Gregory McNish suggests that perhaps focus should have a rhythm, in and out, like breathing.

Jonathan Pratt, an educator with neuroscience background, suggests that the neuroscience research is looking at task efficiency since that is easy to research: “I think it’s a matter of tackling the easier/more quantifiable questions first…brain’s very complex & neuro’s a young field.”

For Rheingold, the hyper-focus on efficiency calls to mind his earlier reading of work by Jacques Ellul, who articulated in the 1950s a grim vision of society being taken over by “technique” – technologies and highly structured activities that eat away at human autonomy and community.

A summary of the conversation: there are goals and values for multi-tasking and social media, other than task-based efficiency. Social gestures, learning, pattern-finding, art – these are all very different from the task completion that is shown to be hampered by multi-tasking. Findings about the impact of multi-tasking on task completion is useful but limited. Hopefully future research will broaden focus to examine the relationship between the experiences of multi-tasking and ambient sociality and other dimensions of life.