How Buildings Learn, for social software

LibraryThing, a site for booklovers who catalog and review the books on their bookshelves is the opposite of those FaceBook junkfood applications designed to get you to use them once or twice, annoy all your friends, and move onto the next big thing. LibraryThing is deep. The social features of LibraryThing aren’t about popularity and making lots of friends, but the opposite — they are designed to help people find a few “like minds” with the same obscure shared interests. From the LibraryThing blog: the fun of LibraryThing isn’t just in the widely held books, it’s in those that are shared by only 10 or 20 other members. It’s easy to find someone who has read The Hobbit. Finding someone to discuss your more obscure books isn’t quite so simple.
Recently I listened to Jon Udell’s interview of Tim Spalding, founder and programmer at LibraryThing. Spalding designs LibraryThing for engagement and depth. It’s best customers are booklovers who put in the time, not only to catalog, rate and review, but to disambiguate titles, variants, translation, and authors helping to build a coherent database out of a gnarly ontological problem, and making the tool more useful for all.
In the interview, Spalding has an interesting insight about why Amazon’s customers don’t tag. When you’re browsing Amazon, your goal is to find books to buy, and to leave. You don’t have an incentive to stick around, to make the site better for yourself and others. LibraryThing is for connoissieurs, not shoppers. LibraryThing’s customers appreciate their collective bookshelp and want to keep organizing it and making it better.
Spalding approaches LibraryThing as a tinkerer, experimenting, remodeling and building wings and extensions. His recommendation tools are works in progress. He’s been gradually adding social features: groups, discussions, recommendations of others with similar tastes. It’s not a site designed to get big and get bought. It’s designed to continually add engagement for members.
Several takeaways from the interview about the design of social software
* Social Software doesn’t get “finished”. It’s more like a building, in Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. Brand writes about how buildings are continually adapted, remodeled and refitted over time for new uses as its occupants’ needs change.
* Social software rewards depth over time. The joy of Facebook, Friendfeed, and Twitter is about letting people know what their friends are doing moment by moment. LibraryThing enables you to make a friend because you have the same 15-year old book (tip: you can run LibraryThing through FriendFeed to get the immediacy, too)
* Social software rewards deep engagement. The reason to add features isn’t because there’s a checklist, it’s because people can continue to do more valuable and enjoyable things in the environment over time

Your Inner Fish

The evolutionary history of animal development is producing some thrilling science these days. Like Endless Forms Most Beautiful, by Sean Carroll, Your Inner Fish is written for a general audience by one of the pioneering scientists in the field.
Neil Shubin is a paleontologist and developmental biologist whose team discovered Tiktaalik, a Devonian fish that is evolving toward tetrapod. The stage of tetrapod evolution is intriguing on its own — the creature jointed fins with ends that bend and splay, and a neck, allowing it to do “pushups” in shallow water to catch prey or watch for predators.
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Carroll has more in-depth information than Shubin about the core of evo devo, the evolution of the developmental program that builds creatures with bodies. Where Shubin’s book shines is exploring the deep evolutionary history of different parts of the body, such as teeth, eyes, ears, and the head. The developmental program for teeth, out of the interaction between layers of skin in the embryo, also generates hair, feathers, and breasts. The bones, cartilage, and nerves in the human jaw, ears, and throat, expanded from tissues that served as gills in fish; the straightforward nerve routes in fish became convoluted in mammals now that the location of the tissues has been rearranged.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book covered the evolution of the building materials of bodies: collagen, cartilage, bone, intercellular communication. One fascinating hypothesis in this section is that one of the key bodybuilding materials, collagen, requires a lot of oxygen to produce. Therefore, a key factor in the explosion of animals with bodies in the Cambrian era was a rapid rise in the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere.
To follow up on this idea, I’m now reading Oxygen, the Molecule that Made the World.

Evolution, meta-evolution, and persuasion

In general, I strongly prefer reading about the science of evolution, rather than arguments defending evolution against its detractors. The beautiful, rich stories of the evolution of life, supported by interlocking evidence in fossils, rocks, and dna are more interesting than the meta-argument. I don’t run into too many creationists in my usual social circles.
Every once in a while, I bump into some creationism. During the long wait for a car repair the other day, I was reading the fascinating story of Oxygen, in which the rocks, air and climate of the earth have been intertwingled with the evolution of life. On the drive back, flipping the tuner in search of a news station I stumbled upon a “creation science” radio show.
The theory of the creationists on the show depended on an assumption of rapidly varying rates of radioactive decay. They couldn’t explain why decay rates would fluctuate, except that God is all-wise and all-powerful. Moreover, they explained, all of the rock layers on earth, which conventional science attributes to billions of years of geologic story, were actually caused by intense volcanic activity and sedimentary deposition during the Flood 5000 years ago. How did Noah survive on the ark, with all the earth’s volcanic and sedimentary rock erupting and flowing around him? Miracles, of course. God is all-powerful.
Science is somewhat harder but much more interesting when you can’t use miracles to patch up the gaps in your logic.
This does raise interesting questions about information and persuasion. Americans’ beliefs tend to divert from orthodox religion when their personal experience diverges from religious teaching. A majority of young people support gay rights, and in general, people are more likely to support gay rights when they know family members, friends or colleagues who are gay. Their emotional experience overrides religious arguments.
Similarly, according to a a new Pew study, a (narrow) majority of American Christians believe that non-Christian religions can also lead to salvation. When people encounter good people with varying religious beliefs, they conclude that it isn’t plausible that only fellow Christians will go to heaven.
Americans come to support gay right and religious pluralism, based on their personal life experiences. So what of evolution? A person isn’t going to meet an australopithecus on the way to the store, or have a feathered dinosaur as a pet. The beautiful and compelling ideas of evolutionary development depend on basic understanding of genetics and developmentary biology. The case for evolution is made of fact and reason, not personal everyday experience.
There is a disturbing sub-plot running between the lines in Oxygen. Much of the innovative geology and paleontology was done in pre-WWII Germany. Science, of course, came to a halt, when society was taken over by a political movement with demented beliefs. What sort of society can educate its citizens so that a majority supports science?